Archive for December, 2014

A Holiday Guest Is Leaving Dangerous Poop in Your Couch – Facts So Romantic

December 30, 2014

We have long known that we can catch germs while traveling. Recent years have shown that we can also bring home bed bugs. This holiday season, a PLoS One study informs us that by merely plopping into the seat of a car or airplane, we can unknowingly pick up dust mites—microscopic 8-legged arthropods that eat the dead parts of our bodies such as skin scales, dandruff flakes, and hair. Dust mites are eyeless, headless, and heartless, yet they’re expert travelers. They’ve been trekking around the world for 400 million years; in the modern era, they travel fast and in style, stowing away inside our seat cushions, luggage, and clothes. Although dust mites don’t directly harm us, they trigger allergies in about a billion people. But we aren’t allergic to the buggers themselves. We’re allergic to their poop.

The feces of dust mites isn’t just a byproduct of digestion, but a potent, biologically active substance vital to their procreation. There isn’t much to eat in the mites’ austere, dusty habitat, says Pavel Klimov at Michigan University, one of the study authors. So they developed a very strong digestive enzyme—a protein called cysteine protease, which helps them break down tough material…
Read More…

Advertisements

Discovering the Expected – Issue 101: In Our Nature

December 25, 2014

Let me tell you the tale of two Nobel Prizes—well, almost. The first Prize I want to tell you about was awarded to Wilhelm Röntgen in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays. The details of this discovery are fascinating in their own right, but the salient point for us is that Röntgen was not looking for X-rays at all. Instead, he was studying the behavior of various types of vacuum tubes. The unexpected shimmering of a piece of his equipment that contained barium made him suspect that something unusual was happening. He was in Stockholm to collect his medal within six years.

The second Nobel Prize I want to tell you about is different in two important ways. First, it hasn’t been awarded yet, and may never be. Second, it involves what is, in some sense, the opposite of an unexpected discovery. The scientists involved knew what they were looking for: an exceedingly rare particle produced when two protons are smashed together. In fact, only once in about 10 billion collisions does this particle occur. As a result, far from taking into consideration an unexpected data source like Röntgen did, they threw away 99.995 percent of their raw data because it…
Read More…

Discovering the Expected – Issue 101: In Our Nature

December 25, 2014

Let me tell you the tale of two Nobel Prizes—well, almost. The first Prize I want to tell you about was awarded to Wilhelm Röntgen in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays. The details of this discovery are fascinating in their own right, but the salient point for us is that Röntgen was not looking for X-rays at all. Instead, he was studying the behavior of various types of vacuum tubes. The unexpected shimmering of a piece of his equipment that contained barium made him suspect that something unusual was happening. He was in Stockholm to collect his medal within six years.

The second Nobel Prize I want to tell you about is different in two important ways. First, it hasn’t been awarded yet, and may never be. Second, it involves what is, in some sense, the opposite of an unexpected discovery. The scientists involved knew what they were looking for: an exceedingly rare particle produced when two protons are smashed together. In fact, only once in about 10 billion collisions does this particle occur. As a result, far from taking into consideration an unexpected data source like Röntgen did, they threw away 99.995 percent of their raw data because it…
Read More…

Is Santa Claus a God? – Facts So Romantic

December 25, 2014

InnervisionArt via Flickr

Santa Claus occupies a strange place in Christian belief. On the one hand, only children seem to really believe he exists; on the other, he gets a great deal more attention than many other purported supernatural beings, such as angels or Satan. 

Does Santa Claus count as a god of the Christian religion? (From an anthropological point of view, many different kinds of supernatural beings can be classified as “gods.”) Christians are likely to say no, in part because Christianity styles itself as a monotheistic religion. I say “styles itself,” because there are several ways in which it looks quite polytheistic. For example, though there are plenty of Christians who believe only in the one capital-G God, there are also many who also believe in angels, saints, demons, and even ghosts—and this is ignoring the complicating example of the Trinity

But although Santa would indeed count as a supernatural being if people believed in him, in fact not many people older than 7½ actually do. However, the nature of the Santa Claus myth bears some striking similarities to the gods of many religions. 

The most obvious similarity…
Read More…

The Amazing Sky Calendar That Ancients Used to Track Seasons – Facts So Romantic

December 23, 2014

The Nebra Sky Disk photographed in Basel, Switzerland, in 2006Dbachmann via Wikipedia 

Henry Westphal is tired. It’s July 4, 1999, a Sunday. He and a friend are climbing the Mittelberg or “Central Hill,” a small mountain near Nebra, in central Germany. Both men know of ancient ruins located here. Equipped with two metal detectors, they hope to find something of value.

Westphal stops to rest for a couple of minutes. It’s a hot day and he’s out of shape. Suddenly his metal detector starts beeping wildly. He brushes some leaves aside with his shoe but can’t make out anything. The detector’s display reads, “OVERLOAD.” 

With a pick, Westphal scrapes at the dry ground. Under a few inches of soil, the pick hits something hard several times. Together the two treasure-hunters dig a small pit. They find several objects: two decorative swords, two ax heads, a chisel, and two bracelets. The objects are piled beside a large, round disk oriented upright in the ground. Through the dirt sticking to the disk, a faint golden shimmer is visible. 

The men take the objects, cover up the hole, and drive home. That night they go to a bar to celebrate the…
Read More…

Take Two Hikes and Call Me in the Morning – Facts So Romantic

December 20, 2014

 

bikeriderlondon via shutterstock

One hundred sixty years ago, Henry David Thoreau published his magnum opus, Walden. In it he detailed his time spent living alongside nature in a cabin adjacent to Walden Pond. In one of the book’s emblematic lines, Thoreau wrote, “We can never have enough of nature.” He believed that it was a “tonic” for us.

Fewer people experience Thoreau’s tonic these days. Many people have little connection to or experience in nature; many spend more time with iPads than in parks. Journalist Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe this phenomenon in his book Last Child in the Woods.

Nature deficit disorder is not an actual mental disorder or illness. Louv chose the name to draw attention to the lack of a connection with nature he observed in young people. But the central argument, that time spent in nature is beneficial to our health and wellbeing, has merit. Decades of research shows that time spent in natural surroundings reduces stress, improves recovery in hospital patients, and puts us in better moods. Many studies also report that study participants say that they simply enjoy nature. 

“The research is pretty clear,” says Andrea…
Read More…

The New Flight of the Ibis – Issue 101: In Our Nature

December 18, 2014

In 2007, on a fine summer day in rural Austria, a flock of northern bald ibises followed two paraplanes, gondolas with prop engines, held aloft by yellow and blue parachutes. Although the ibises looked like vultures on the ground, the resemblance disappeared in the air. In flight their long, curved bills jutted forward, their black wings shimmered purple and green.

The scientist piloting one of the paraplanes was leading the ibises to a mountain pass in the Alps and a wintering ground in Tuscany. For centuries, ibises had been plentiful in Europe. They summered north of the Alps in today’s Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, where they nested on cliffs and castle walls and fed from meadows. By the early 1600s, the sociable animals, vulnerable to hunting, had been wiped off the continent. If this group of 20 learned the route to Tuscany and returned on its own, it would be the first colony of northern bald ibises to migrate in Europe in 400 years.

But the birds were not sticking to the script of their historic mission. After shadowing the paraplanes for about five miles, they turned around and flew back to where they started that day. The birds landed in a…
Read More…

Biologists’ Clever Way to Detect Animals They Can’t Find – Facts So Romantic

December 18, 2014

A hellbender at the National Zoo in WashingtonBrian Gratwicke via Flickr

Wildlife doesn’t get much weirder than the hellbender, a frilly, crayfish-gobbling salamander, about the length of a baby alligator, whose bizarre aliases include “snot otter,” “devil dog,” and “grampus.” The giant amphibian stalks rocky streambeds throughout the eastern United States—or at least it did, until agriculture, deforestation, and dams ruined water quality and habitats throughout much of its range. These days, scientists aren’t certain where snot otters still roam.

“They like to hide under big rocks, they’re nocturnal, and they blend in perfectly with the stream bottom,” says Andy Adams, a Loyola University biology professor who hasn’t spotted a hellbender since he was himself an undergraduate. “Even people who study them rarely see them.”

The creature’s scarcity and secretive habits have created a dilemma for conservation. How can agencies protect hellbenders when they can’t even be sure where they are? The answer: Environmental DNA, or eDNA, the scientific technique that’s revolutionizing aquatic biology.

For decades, searching for snot otters required scientists to spend long days crawling along streambeds and flipping rocks—a method that was arduous, disruptive to salamanders, and fraught with uncertainty. By contrast, eDNA could hardly be more convenient, for…
Read More…

A New Shield Against Grammar Naziism: Science! – Facts So Romantic

December 16, 2014

spaxiax via Shutterstock 

Over his career, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has taken on a wide range of research and writing subjects, and his work has provoked big debates in most, if not all, of them. His latest book, The Sense of Style, is about another farflung topic—grammar—and his iconoclastic opinions have, predictably, drawn fire (and ire) from people with more traditional views of the field. In a Guardian column spun off from the book, he advances one argument that clashes with what you’ll hear from almost any grammar guide:

I am told that all snowflakes are unique, and so they may be under a microscope, but frankly, they all look the same to me. Conversely, each of the proverbial two peas in a pod is unique if you squint hard enough through a magnifying glass. Does this mean that nothing is unique, or does it mean that everything is unique? The answer is neither: the concept “unique” is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you and which degree of resolution or grain size you’re applying. Calling something “quite unique” or “very unique” implies that the item differs from…
Read More…

Where Endangered Vultures Go for a Healthy, Rotting Meal – Facts So Romantic

December 13, 2014

A young, captive Cape vultureChelsea Biondolillo

The sun is hot and high over Hartbeetspoort, South Africa, the air thick with humidity and flies. On the dirt in front of us are the remains of three cows. Bridgette Kahill asks, “Ready to get your hands dirty?”

Her fellow volunteer Nobuhle Thelma Mabhikwa nods.

They work together at VulPro, a non-profit vulture-rehabilitation center. VulPro cares for sick and injured birds, and offers safe food for wild and released birds at their “vulture restaurant.” The restaurant serves carcasses of large animals that have been donated by nearby farms. Every few days, the volunteers clean up what the birds have not eaten and bring new carcasses to the restaurant.

On this particular day, the wild birds aren’t very hungry, and they leave a lot of heavy, pungent meat on the bones. The volunteers’ job is to break the cows down into small enough pieces to cart across the field to a pit where the remains will be burned. They tug and twist at the bones, but even mostly stripped cow carcasses can weigh hundreds of pounds. They use knives to saw through the tough hides.

Another volunteer comes by with her small pickup truck outfitted…
Read More…